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Top 100: Get the bosses’ perspective

Features - Cover Story

L&L spends a day inside landscaping’s biggest companies.

Matt LaWell | May 2, 2013

Jim Schwantz

Owner and CEO // Acres Group // Wauconda, Ill.

For the first handful or so of years after he opened his doors for business, Jim Schwantz still worked on a crew every morning. This was back in 1983, around the time he founded Acres Group out of his home in the Chicago suburbs.

That lasted just until he added his third crew and was able to turn his focus to the management of his young company. Over the next three decades, he added more crews, more departments and more revenue, right around $40 million annually, and so much about his days changed. “Life,” he says, “changed a lot.”

But no matter what else changes over the next decade or two or three, Schwantz will still start every day the same way he does now, and the same way he did in 1983. He will wake up around 5 a.m. without an alarm clock, which still amuses his wife, Barb, then head downstairs to read The Daily Herald with a cup of coffee.

I like to read the newspaper still. I like to walk the dog and read the paper over my breakfast. There was a nice story on the front page the other day about the ash borer in the town of Mundelein. They finally found out they have it. I read that and thought, Wow, these guys are about three years behind.

I live about seven miles from work. I usually drive a Chevy Suburban, but sometimes, in the summer, I ride a bicycle.

I start with my emails. It’s 200, 300 a day. It’s bad. You could get sucked in to the point that’s all you do. It’s a way to be more productive, but you have to be careful. You have to break away sometimes. You have a tremendous amount of information at your fingertips and getting to it all is difficult.

My first stop depends on the time of year and what needs help. We have three facilities and, most of the time, my office is in Wauconda. I’ll go to the other buildings once or twice a month. I love to get involved, I love the big problems, but I don’t like the little, stupid stuff. Sit in a meeting all day about policies or procedures? I would rather have a root canal. I get through it and I can do it, but I don’t like it.

Advice from the Rest of the List

“I would recommend not being cutting edge. Especially landscapers, they tend to get caught up in a sales pitch and all of a sudden they’ve got 10 new pieces of equipment that create scheduling issues for them, routing issues, nothing’s the same so it becomes very hard to train their employees on how to do quick fixes.  They end up having to hire mechanics on staff just because they have all these different types of machinery and no one knows how to fix it. So I would stay a little bit below the radar. You want “new,” but do it smart.

- Jen Lemcke, Weed Man

Days change with the seasons, with the weather, with what our goals are. I don’t visit customers as much as I used to. I would say it’s about 25 percent of my time, and it was probably 75 percent of my time years ago. We have about 20 sales reps, four sales managers.

My job, I’m the balancer. I have about eight direct reports, and they all are responsible for something. I just go between them and make sure we stay balanced. We could need more production capacity, and I’ll push that, then I might have to go talk with the finance guy.

Most of these people have been with me near 20 years. I used to roll through a lot of people. I had a totally different management style. It was just, ‘Get it done.’ I rolled a lot of guys and I learned a lot. Now I have an office person who’s been with me 26 years, and I have a foreman who’s been with me 27 years. He used to train and give me another foreman every year. He’s a little gray-haired now.

I put good people around me. They run it, I support them, and it has worked very well that way. I like to manage. There are customers out there who want to meet the owner, and I’ll go, but I would rather stay behind the scenes.

Today, I have about five phone calls I have to make yet before I leave at 11. I’ll be back by 12:30 for budget meetings all afternoon with different department heads. Snow was not as kind to us this year and we have to reevaluate some things. Each of those are about an hour. Hopefully, I’m done with that about 4:30 and I’m supposed to go run at 5. And my taxes are still sitting on my desk.

I work more like 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. now. I like to lock the gate at night. Kind of a dumb thing, but I still like to lock the gate at night.

Before I go to bed, I walk through my day. If I don’t like how something went, the next day, I’m going to go back and call or visit that person. I think you have to go back and do it the next day because life is so busy. You don’t get to do it otherwise. You have to go back right away.

I can fall asleep sitting up watching the 9 o’clock news.
 

 


 

 

Joey Dobbs

CEO // Landscape Workshop // Bessemer, Alabama

Alabama is a deceptively large state, a series of big cities scattered from the mountains in the north to the gulf in the south, and Joey Dobbs has a presence in all of them. He founded Landscape Workshop in Bessemer, just outside Birmingham, close to three decades ago, and now has locations near Auburn, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa, not to mention Memphis, Tenn. All that, though, can lead to a different schedule every day and lots of miles in the car, like right now, when Dobbs, the CEO, is on his way south from the home office.

He works most of the week on the road and is able to spend only weekends with his wife, Amy, an engineer for AT&T in Birmingham. It’s not an ideal situation. It’s also not permanent, even if he does have plans for the next few years to expand the company into Georgia, Mississippi and more of Tennessee.

I go where I’m needed. I’m working down here to build some sales and reinforce some areas. I have a good time doing it and I’m happy to be a part of this process. It does make for long days.

I never have had a morning routine. It’s up, shower and gone. But I am trying to exercise, walking and riding my bike. I haven’t hit the weights in a long, long time. I haven’t done that since college. The cardio’s what I need. It relieves the stress.

I try to stay in touch with everybody. I can’t get to everybody every day, but I try to hit the high spots and I don’t feel like I’ve had a good day unless I’ve talked to some of those folks and I understand what’s going on with them and the direction they’re headed, where we’re headed as a company, what they’re hearing.

I do my best to get a hold of several of our clients every day and reach out and maintain that communication so they know we care, I care, we’re connected. I try to stay connected, anything that I can do.

Advice from the Rest of the List

“I do believe the companies that kept their chin up and focused on lean practices and really tried to be the best that they can be in all areas and are really focused – I think at the end of it, they’ll come out a much better, stronger company in the end. We don’t really talk about it around here.”

Maria Candler, James River Grounds Management


“I think the most common mistake is not spending enough time planning. Most contractors start to do the work before planning it, which leads to inefficiencies and is certainly one of the most costly mistakes. It’s important to have a type of measurement system in place to ensure that projects are monitored very closely.”

Mark Bradley, TBG Landscape

I need to put my eyes on lots of things because, somebody calls, like this developer friend who’s building a Publix and a Home Depot, we built the boulevard for him, and if he has a question, I know exactly what’s going on on the site and I’m up to date. I need to be up to date on everything that we do.

I’ve never tried to avoid anything. There are things that are time sinks that you don’t want to get caught up in sometimes, but sometimes they’re necessary to get things done. That 27th meeting? Maybe if we can talk about it in person, that’s wonderful.

I try to reach out to an old friend every day, somebody I haven’t talked to in six months or a year or two years, and rekindle an acquaintance or a friendship.

I hate to be pushed up against the wall with deadlines. Beyond that, I just take it as it rolls down the line and comes to us. You can schedule and prioritize, you can set it all up, you can time it out, but at the end of the day, there are going to be things that come up and you’re going to have to drop what you’re doing and do them.

Last night, it was probably 7:30 or 8 by the time I wound it all up. With Daylight Saving Time, it’s tough to not do something that’s productive when the sun’s out.

I’m fortunate that I have a little place I can go to down here. I get there in the evenings, but it does make for long days because I’m by myself, I’m cooking for one. I love to cook and it’s something that relaxes me, but it’s tough to cook for one after you go on the road all day.

I’m always trying to eat right. Last night, I cooked a chicken on the grill. Started around 7:30, steamed some broccoli, the chicken came off around 8:15, added a sweet potato. That’s about as healthy as I can get. I’m going to make chicken salad out of the leftover chicken, and I’m going to have some tomatoes and some arugula.

Amy and I have a small farm that, in the evenings and on the weekends, I’ll go there and plow. Turn the lights on and stay until 7:30, 8 at night, plowing, getting ready to plant an acre or two. I’m learning how difficult it is to be a farmer.

Amy and I love the outdoors. We go for boat rides, we watch sunsets together, we try to spend as much time as we can doing those things we enjoy.
 

 


 

Gary Mallory

CEO // Heads Up Landscape Contractors Albuquerque, N.M.

Gary Mallory works with more than 220 people and he wants to know every one of them. Mallory is the CEO of Heads Up, the company he helped found in Albuquerque close to four decades ago, back when he was still an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico who scheduled all his classes for Tuesdays and Thursdays so he could work the rest of the week. There are so many ways to learn more about the people around you. One of his favorites is good conversation over food.

Every week, Mallory asks one his hundreds of employees to go out and eat lunch with him. “I get a lot out of that,” he says. “I get some really good feedback about how our policies feel to an employee, what they think is going right or wrong.”

Mallory extends a similar invitation one morning every month to a couple dozen employees in the office for a less intimate but no less important meal: Breakfast burritos, sweet rolls, orange juice and open questions in a conference room. “I can get pretty honest feedback from employees about what we need,” he says. “I get a surprising variety of questions, too.” That breakfast really is the most important meal of the day.

It was always hard to work out in the mornings, because I was used to being here when everybody headed out for the day, but I found that if I waited to work out and the day ran long, I would skip the workout. Now (three days a week) I work out at 6 in the morning.

I usually get to work around 7:15 a.m. I have a couple of weekly meeting, but I make sure I meet with my direct reports one day a week for an hour with the door closed, and we just go over stuff.

Advice from the Rest of the List

“If something happens and a client didn’t get back to me, the human brain starts to tell you the client didn’t get back to you because – and then you make up all of these stories – they were upset, or they don’t have money to do the project. When in reality, the only fact is they didn’t get back to you. It’s amazing how many times I’ve said, “Well, is that a story or is that a fact?” We need to clear our heads and get rid of what I call “head trash” and focus on what the fact is.”

Craig Ruppert, Ruppert Cos.

I have dashboard stuff that flows to me, financial information, and I review that every morning. It’s a one-page thing, and I think it should be one page because it shouldn’t take a long time. I see our cash balances and our accounts receivable balances, our payables. When I was younger, I might check the cash balances once a week and I would get surprised. Now you can see trends a little more, you know what’s coming.

One important meeting is for the maintenance sales team. We meet on at 9 a.m. on Tuesdays. We go over where we are in relation to our goals and we talk about strategizing. Wednesdays at 8:30 a.m., I meet with our CFO, Shawn Stomp, and our president, Andrew Key, and we go over issues.

If there are upset customers, that trumps everything. I want to make sure they’re happy. If a customer’s upset, I’ll drop everything and deal with that. I do try hard, though, to let the people who are supposed to deal with that actually deal with that.

My biggest failure would be if I shortchanged my family because of my business. I do think it’s legitimate to take time out of your work schedule for the family. I never missed parent-teacher conferences.

I’ve hardly ever worked weekends. For the most part, Saturdays have been for coaching basketball and going fishing and being with the family.

We would work on bids until midnight sometimes, and the next day, I would try to take the afternoon off and recharge my batteries, spend some time with my family.
 


 

Joe Gonzalez

CEO // Artis Tree Landscape Maintenance and Design // Venice, Florida

In Florida, most days on the Gulf Coast are warm and filled with sun, but today is not, so Joe Gonzalez definitely has a lunch with clients on his schedule. Sounds like a much better use of his time than daydreams about an afternoon in his boat out on the water, though there are plenty of those in nicer weather.

Gonzalez is the CEO of Artis Tree Landscape Maintenance and Design in Venice, situated right between Tampa and Fort Myers, and before he entered horticulture in 1990, he worked in finance and fashion and greeting cards, and he became a millionaire almost overnight thanks to stock options that turned into cash after a sale.

He never wanted to stop working after that, but he and his wife, Penny, wanted to at least take control of their lives. Why not move to Florida and build a business or two? So Gonzalez purchased a small landscape maintenance company for a challenge and an air-conditioning company for a financial cornerstone. The latter flopped in a matter of months. The former is still strong, almost a quarter of a century later.

I get up very, very early, but I don’t come to the office. I’ll get on the Internet, I’ll read some of the news, I’ll review a few things at home, have coffee at home.

I’ll be in here at 8, 8:30. The first thing I’ll do is go into my financials and just take a quick review of what billings we had the day before and what’s going on with some of the expenses, looking at our labor usage. Then I’ll start moving around to the various people who work for me, I’ll get an update of what’s going on in various departments.

My orientation is to hire strong people when I can afford them and delegate to them what their missions will be. As long as everything is performed well, I stay out of it. I come in to the office every morning for a full morning, sometimes a full day. I keep a close eye on my financials. I see each one of my managers at least on a weekly basis, if not on a daily basis, depending on what’s going on internally.

I don’t schedule a lot of routine meetings other than a landscape meeting every Friday morning. I leave myself free in the mornings. I have virtually no customer interaction anymore. Today, I don’t even know that the customers know who I am.

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Eight or nine months ago, I separated myself from the guy who was running my landscape division and I have taken that on personally, to run for the time being, just to get it reorganized. We’re about 90 percent of the way through that effort. Our sales have been skyrocketing in that division for the last six months or so, and the backlog is growing pretty rapidly. That’s not just a result of me stepping in. That’s a result of really what’s going on with the economy down here in Florida. There’s been a lot of construction and whatever the conditions are up north is driving people down.

In the afternoons, it’s going to be racquetball, it’s going to be golf, it’s going to be one form of entertainment or another. I try to take as much opportunity as I can to spend time with my children. I have a granddaughter on the way.

Over the years before I got my own business, I put the time in, the crazy hours seven days a week, the eating breakfast and sometimes dinner at my desk, the sometimes sleeping in my office. Part of the reason I became an entrepreneur was because I wanted to live a normal life.

I have no desire to retire. I can do my bucket list from this desk. I can keep myself fulfilled every day and still come in here every day and use my mind for a couple hours. I don’t ever see myself retiring as long as my health holds up. I’d like to be involved in one way or another.

 

 

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